The Real Cost of Prisons –An interview with Lois Ahrens
The Real Cost of Prisons
–An interview with Lois Ahrens
By Angola 3 News
Lois Ahrens is the Founder/Director of The Real Cost of Prisons Project (RCPP) and has been an activist/organizer for more than 40 years. First started in 2001, RCPP brings together justice activists, artists, justice policy researchers and people directly experiencing the impact of mass incarceration to work together to end the U.S. prison nation. RCPP created workshops, a website that includes sections of writing and ‘comix’ by prisoners, a daily news blog focused on mass incarceration and three comic books that were first created in 2005: Prisoners Town: Paying the Price, by artist Kevin Pyle and writer Craig Gilmore; Prisoners of the War on Drugs, by artist Sabrina Jones and writers Ellen Miller-Mack and Lois Ahrens; and Prisoners of a Hard Life: Women and Their Children by artist Susan Willmarth and writers Ellen Miller-Mack and Lois Ahrens.
Hundreds of organizations around the country use the comix in workshops, outreach and organizing. 135,000 have been printed, while over 115,000 have been sent, free of charge, to organizations and thousands of people held in prisons and jails. Due to lack of funding, Prison Town is now out of print and Prisoners of A Hard Life will soon be as well. Prisoners of the War on Drugs is still available. Print-ready versions of all three are available to view and download here.
In 2008, the three comix were published in an anthology, edited by Ahrens, entitled The Real Cost of Prisons Comix, (PM Press, 2008). Through the RCPP, Ahrens has been fortunate to have built an extensive correspondence with prisoners, which has grown into working relationships and friendships. In Massachusetts where she lives, Ahrens is involved in working to stop the state from charging $5/day jail fees to convicted prisoners and those held “pretrial.” She is also working to stop new “3 Strikes” legislation from being passed.
Angola 3 News: Who is your target audience and what is the message that you are communicating with the comix?
Lois Ahrens: The comic books were created to communicate complex ideas in language that could be easily understood despite the fact that they are filled with information, research, analysis and a glossary. We wanted them to look and feel like comic books since people are not intimidated by comic books.
Initially, my goal was to create useful materials for organizers working to challenge and change punitive and destructive drug policies, activists opposing the building of new prisons and jails, as well as educators, and health workers. After publishing the comic books, we realized that prisoners were extremely interested. Comic books have been sent to prisoners every day since April 2005, with many requesting that comics be sent to family members and other prisoners.
The comic books place an individual’s experience in a political context by describing how the prison system is built on racism, sexism, and economic inequality. They include alternatives to the current reality so that readers can strategize and act to make change no matter where they are. The goal of the comic books is to politicize.
A3N: Have you ever had problems from prison authorities when sending comic books to prisoners?
LA: Yes. I think of this as the “tyranny of the mail room.” Often an individual working in a mail room sends the comic books back. Generally, I have found county jails are the worst in turning back comic books. For prisoners who are in “administrative segregation” there are often rules against receiving materials. Because the Real Cost of Prisons is the publisher of the comic books, usually, after a phone call, or an appeal letter, comic books do get in. Since comic books have been sent to prisoners in every state, I always cite many examples of other prisons within that system where they have been accepted. I appeal every refusal.
Interestingly, women’s prisons are more apt to return comic books; however, once I write and say that a prison for men in that state has accepted them, they do get in.
A3N: In your 2008 book The Real Cost of Prisons Comix you wrote that “every year from 1947 through the beginning of the 1970s, approximately 200,000 people were incarcerated in the US. Today, there are more than 2.3 million men and women incarcerated [now 2.4 million], with more than 5 million more on parole and probation.” Subsequently, the US has become the world’s #1 jailer. According to the International Center for Prison Studies at King’s College London, only China, with 1,620,000 prisoners, and the Russian Federation, with 819,200 prisoners, have a total prison population that is remotely close to the US.
Furthermore, with 751 out of 100,000 people, and one out of every 100 adults in prison or jail, the US also has the highest incarceration rate in the world. The Russian Federation is second with 577 per 100,000 and China is 116th with 120 per 100,000. How do you explain this astonishing level of mass imprisonment in the US during the last 40 years? What are the forces behind this and why have they employed this particular strategy?
LA: In the workshops we first developed, in our trainings, and in the comic books, we wanted to create a bigger picture about how we came to this place. To do this, I think we need to understand how Ronald Reagan and the neo-liberal agenda came to power in 1980 by using covert and overt racist messages fabricating the myth of the welfare queen, capitalizing on fears of affirmative action, tearing away at the gains made in civil rights movement—specifically voting rights—while fostering alarm about rampant crime.
The racist sub-text of the neo-liberal political agenda succeeded in creating acceptance of mass incarceration while simultaneously creating the laws and industries to police, prosecute, cage and control millions of people—almost all poor people and people of color.
Neo-liberal policies have been in place for more than thirty years. As a result many people are not aware that our current political and economic situation is not the result of a natural course of events, but rather, of a systemically created ideology that has pervaded every aspect of our daily lives. Deregulation and globalization have caused: the loss of U.S. manufacturing by outsourcing; corporate agriculture and the disappearance of the family farm; reduction of protections for workers; huge decreases in number of unionized workers; privatization of hospitals, water, education, prisons, and the military; drastic cuts in public spending for welfare, public schools, public transportation, housing, and job training. These policies have created huge disparities in wealth.
Democrats and Republicans capitalized on this “perfect storm”. They ran and won on “tough on crime” platforms and passed legislation that has resulted in one in 31 people now under the thumb of the criminal justice system.
A3N: The corporate media’s support for the prison system has ranged from stoking public fears by over-reporting crime, to portraying prisoners as pampered and over-privileged. The comic books, therefore, provide an important counter-narrative. A major focus of the comic books has been the so-called “war on drugs.” Why do you feel that this issue is so important?
LA: Of the more than 2.4 million people imprisoned, more than one million are African Americans. Almost 5 million men and women are on probation and parole, a disproportionate number due to the “war on drugs.” (According to a Pew Report in March 2009, “One in 11 African-Americans are under correctional control, one in 27 Latinos, and one in 45 white people are in prison, jail, or under correctional supervision.”)
The war on drugs includes aggressive policing, centralized data bases for people stopped and frisked for no cause, surveillance cameras in streets and buildings, police or security in schools, and SWAT teams for communities as small as 25,000, and long and punitive mandatory sentences.
From its inception, African-Americans and their communities were the primary target of the war on drugs. In terms of drug use: African Americans constitute 13% of the nation’s monthly drug users, 37% of drug possession arrests, 56% of drug possession convictions, and 74% of those sentenced to prison for drug possession.
There are mandatory sentences for drug convictions and disproportionate sentencing for crack vs. powder cocaine. After years of organizing against this, the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine has changed from 100 to 1 to 18 to 1, with no retroactivity for those already convicted under the old law. 80% of people sentenced to crack cocaine charges are African American.
A3N: What have been the consequences of this mass incarceration, fueled by the war on drugs?
LA: The consequences for individuals, families and communities are huge, cumulative, and long-lasting. According to Dina Rose and Todd Clear, in African American communities where 15 to 20% of adults are incarcerated community stability is undermined, resulting in more crime instead of less crime, especially when aggressive policing is added. In addition to less safety, what are the effects of removing the earning and spending power of so many who are incarcerated? What are the long term costs of the disruption of the family as both an economic and emotional unit?
There are other costs and consequences of the punitive legislation especially directed at people with felony drug convictions—read African Americans—that prevent them from creating a sustainable life once they leave prison. These include, for some, a ban on higher education and vocational training, as well as a ban on receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) if convicted of possessing or selling drugs, although some states have opted out. Legislation in 1996 and 1998 also prevented people with felony drug convictions and their families from federally subsidized housing, serving to increase homelessness and make family reunification much more difficult—for women especially. For women who are incarcerated, there is always the possibility of losing custody of their children.
A3N: How has the corporate media presented the war on drugs? Strategically speaking, how do you think activists can best confront this and work to publicly discredit the war on drugs?
LA: The media has portrayed the war on drugs as a fantasy of good vs. evil. There is little or no acknowledgement of the truth about who is targeted and why, of the system’s cruelty and destructiveness, nor of its lasting consequences to people’s lives, the evisceration of communities, and the bankrupting of governments. Only now, with huge state budget deficits, have some states begun to look at what 40 years of these policies have created; not because they think they are unconscionable, but because they are no longer financial sustainable. If they could find a way to continue to finance the bloated prisons and jails, I don’t think they would be looking for alternatives.
Despite this, I do think there is a small opening now to look at the catastrophic “war on drugs.” Michelle Alexander, in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness, details how in many ways, the war on drugs has created a more potent, strangulating and oppressive system than the old Jim Crow.
I agree with her and think this framework can re-energize people who took part in the Civil Rights and Black Empowerment movements of the 1960’s and millions who did not. I believe that what is important about her book is that she articulates the convergence of economic, legal, legislative, governmental policies and political forces which led to the mass incarceration of African Americans.
To overturn these policies and the beliefs on which they were built, we must understand the complexities of why and how they have been put in place. Then we can build the new and strong movement we need now.
A3N: Alongside the printed comic books, how do you use the RCPP?
LA: Early on, we developed a website and a little after that a news blog. Together, every day they receive a minimum of 2000 unique visitors. The website is filled with new research, links to hundreds of organizations, and the comic books. A few years ago I began adding political writing and comix by prisoners. This is now a big part of the website. People inside and outside the country are now using the comix and essays in other publications, which is how I had hoped it would work.
As the website has developed, so has a list-serve that keeps me connected to hundreds of organizers, as well as the media and family members of prisoners.
A3N: Of the many news stories featured on the website in the last couple years, could you tell us about a few important stories that you think were the most under-reported and/or misreported by the corporate media?
LA: There are thousands of stories because the true story about prisons is almost completely missing from not only the corporate media, but the left media as well.
First, there is almost no coverage at all about the growth of solitary confinement in the U.S. The best website for this is Solitary Watch and the RCPP website and blog publishes writing and comix from prisoners in solitary.
Second, there are a number of stories involving prisoners organizing, notably the Georgia Prisoners strike and the hunger strike in Lucasville, Ohio. There are a number of stories posted on the RCPP blog. The Human Rights Coalition (PA) is working to bridge the divide between outside and inside organizing (see The Movement).
Third includes “How prisons and jails are becoming debtors prisons,” “Criminal Justice Debt: A Barrier to Reentry” by the Brennan Center, and “In For a Penny: The Rise of America’s New Debtors’ Prisons” by the ACLU .
Finally, the excellent work by The National Advocates for Pregnant Women, whose groundbreaking work brings together issues of women, reproductive rights, criminal justice, and racism.
A3N: Besides the website, how else has the RCPP evolved since the first comic book was published?
LA: The RCPP has evolved greatly since its beginning in 2000. When I started, I barely knew anyone in prison. That began to change once we started conducting our workshops and created a Train the Trainers program which involved many people who had been incarcerated.
Then, the comic books started flying out the door and the daily stacks of letters began arriving. Reading thousands of letters and beginning long-lasting correspondence-relationships with many prisoners, my focus shifted to their efforts to connect and remain a part of the world outside of prison. I saw how the longer someone’s sentence is, the more difficult it becomes to maintain connections—especially after a loved one has passed away.
Because of my daily connections with prisoners, I have become much more involved in conditions of confinement, sentences of life without the possibility of parole, the lengthening of sentences, the parole process or lack of it, and the non-use of compassionate release—even in states where it is policy.
I am constantly aware of the daily cruelties and indignities that men and women endure at the hands of others. I witness how so many people (against circumstances designed to dehumanize and crush their body and mind) manage to overcome and create lives of meaning to themselves and others.
A3N: What do you focus most of your energy on these days?
LA: In addition to sending out comic books, answering mail, and updating the website, I spend some part of everyday attempting to track down research, contacts, and other information for a large number of prisoners who are writers, researchers and activists/organizers.
In Massachusetts, where I am located, I have led an effort to stop the jails from charging fees to prisoners who are convicted and “pre-sentenced.” We are now waiting for a report that will hopefully recommend against these outrageous fees. I am engaged in various efforts to stop “three strikes” legislation from being law in MA. I regularly write and speak to classes and organizations about what is going on all around them, if they will allow themselves to look.
A3N: In your opinion, what are the best forms of practical action that those of us living outside the prison walls can do to help to improve present conditions for those incarcerated, and to challenge the broader criminal “justice” system, with abolition as the long-term goal?
LA: As abolitionists we must find smaller and larger steps along the way to stay engaged and connected to activists inside and out. There’s a lot of work to do:
–Connect to prisoners via books through bars projects and pen pal programs.
–Create true community-based alternatives programs that are not affiliated with sheriff’s departments and other law enforcement, for people with non-violent convictions to stay at home, connected to family and communities, and not go to jail.
–Create bail reform programs so that jails are not debtors prisons- examples include unsecured appearance bonds, setting lower amounts of bail and lowering bail based on the circumstances of someone’s life. For example, do they have children they are taking care of? Do they have a job that will be jeopardized? Many people plead guilty and then end up jail because they know they can’t make bail.
–Create affirmative action campaigns for people with criminal records, based on models of other affirmative action categories, to begin a conversation with employers about the need for second chances. Expand the campaign to housing fairness.
–Talk about the growth of solitary confinement in the U.S. People will be disbelieving but Solitary Watch is a great resource for information and activism.
–Work to expand parole, rather than restricting it! Attend parole hearings and write letters in behalf of people seeking parole
–Communicate with your governor to reinstate commutation. Most governors no longer commute sentences, although this used to be standard practice. Actively support people seeing commutation through letter writing campaigns and public events.
–Work to end the unnecessary and costly systems designed to send parolees back to prison based on minor violations. Strategically speaking, right now with state budget deficits, is a good time to focus attention on this.
–Challenge the drug laws that criminalize addiction and work with “harm reductionists” to provide needle exchange, safe injection sites, community education.
–Decriminalize sex work by joining forces with organizations of sex workers and make public the harassment from the police suffered by sex workers.
–Work with organizations such as Families Against Mandatory Minimums nationally and in your state to end mandatory minimum drug sentences.
–Begin a conversation with state legislators on the extreme length of sentences, not only for people convicted of non-violent offenses, but for those convicted of violent offenses as well. The new report by the Justice Policy Institute, “Finding Direction: Expanding Criminal Justice Options by Considering Policies of Other Nations,” provides models of what other countries are doing.
–Model the successful organizing strategies and legislation in NY State to end the shackling of women in labor and childbirth.
–Join with family groups and others organizing to end “life without the possibility of parole.” Introduce parole review for everyone beginning at 15 years.
–Make compassionate release real for states where it is already a law. Work with faith-based groups and involve faith-based communities in organizing for compassionate release.
–Work with Families to Amend California’s Three Strikes (FACTS) and other organizations to end three strikes and habitual offender sentences.
–Join forces with community-based mental health and addiction treatment centers to advocate for money needed for treatment in communities, rather than jails and prisons filled with people suffering from untreated mental illness and no drug treatment. Drug addiction is a mental illness.
–Question the propaganda about who is criminal and the unchanging nature of people who have committed crimes and how they are portrayed in the media.
–Finally, each of us must fight racism wherever we find it. Fighting racism is a blow to mass incarceration.
A3N: How can our readers support your work?
LA: Your readers can support the work of the RCPP by becoming actively engaged in any areas I suggest in the previous answer. People need to know that they can spend a few hours a week and it can have political meaning.
They can financially support effective grassroots organizations that receive no funding or little funding, including of course, the Real Cost of Prisons Project. Our total yearly budget is approximately $4,000 which provides postage, envelopes and maintaining the website. You can make a donation here.
Mostly, I believe people need to wake-up and get engaged wherever they live in whatever they find most compelling. The fact that there is so much to do is not a reason to do nothing.
–Angola 3 News is a project of the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3. Our website is www.angola3news.com where we provide the latest news about the Angola 3. We are also creating our own media projects, which spotlight the issues central to the story of the Angola 3, like racism, repression, prisons, human rights, solitary confinement as torture, and more.